By: Dawn Irwin
As I type this on my laptop keyboard, flying on a plane heading back to Vermont after attending the Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C., I can’t help but sit here and think about what has brought me to this moment. The past three days have been a whirlwind of workshops, discussion panels, meetings, dinners, and networking, and it still doesn’t feel real. Honestly, I never ever saw myself heading to our nation’s capital, sitting in congressional offices, and speaking on behalf our of country, and ultimately, the world’s most vulnerable population. But…here I am.
So. How did I get here?
Three years ago, I was talking to a teacher friend of mine about how hopeless I was feeling about the fate of our world. It seemed as though everything was getting worse by the day, sometimes the hour, and it was hard not be consumed by it. I was observing, as well as experiencing, the hardships young families in Vermont are facing due to the childcare crisis. I was stuck in a broken system that no one seemed to care about, let alone want to fix. On top of it all, I was a huge Bernie supporter. His defeat and the rise of Trump was a reality I was having an extremely hard time comprehending. The helplessness I was experiencing was getting out of control and I didn’t know what to do to make it better. I remember saying how much I wished there was something, ANYTHING, I could do to change the trajectory I felt like our world was heading in. That’s when my friend told me about an organization called Let’s Grow Kids. I had never heard of it before so she explained that it is a non-profit organization working towards the goal of creating real change for our field and the children and families affected by it. She said they were looking for volunteers to help get the word out and advocate on behalf of the kids and families in our state.
At the time, trying to make any kind of difference felt impossible for two reasons – I did not feel like I had anything worth value to contribute and even if I felt like I did, I assumed any efforts put in on my part would have been in vain. But, I decided to put what Bernie had preached throughout his campaign into practice – I had to become an active member of the community and be the change I wanted to see in the world. So, I hesitantly told my friend that I would attend the next Let’s Grow Kids Burlington Action Team Meeting with her and see what it was all about.
The excited nervousness that was racing through my body was both terrifying and exhilarating. I had never been to a meeting like this before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I couldn’t stop playing the What If Game in my head. You know the one…What if I don’t know anyone? What were we going to talk about? What would the people be like? What if I said something stupid? What if they didn’t like me? Or, worst of all, what if they told me to leave because they realized I actually didn’t belong there in the first place?
I walked in the door to the meeting room and all of my worst fears evaporated immediately. I was greeted with smiles and a warm, welcoming atmosphere that made me feel comfortable almost right away. From that night on, I was hooked. Three months later, I attended my first Let’s Grow Kids Advocacy Conference. Since then, I have never looked back.
I never imagined I would be politically active. I thought, why would anyone listen to what I had to say? What difference could I make? I had never met any legislators, let alone talked to one. What could one person really do to affect change?
Well, it turns out, that one person can do a lot.
The folks at Let’s Grow Kids believed in me and my ability to become an effective advocate for change. They took a person that had no experience, as well as zero confidence, and taught me that passion and a willingness to try new things goes a long way. They offered me opportunities to use the skills I already had to build new ones. Slowly, but surely, through tiny supported steps outside of my comfort zone, I began to believe in myself.
But, most importantly, they made me believe that real change was actually possible.
Since that first fateful action team meeting, I have collected petition signatures, tabled various events, participated in door to door canvassing, phone banking, been an active member of two action teams, initiated direct correspondence with legislators, talked with representatives face to face, event set up a meeting between a local legislator and some of his constituents. I’ve given a speech about advocacy, and also supported others in their evolution to becoming effective advocates. Then, just about a month and a half ago, I was given the opportunity to up my advocacy game.
Save the Children Action Network hosted an event in Burlington. Actor and activist, Jennifer Garner, and the CEO of Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), Mark Shriver, gave a talk about Save the Children and work they engage in to support families, children, and early education in America. They also talked about SCAN and what they are doing to create policy change at a national level. After the event, Holly and I were both invited to fill out applications for the chance to be one of five Vermont representatives to attend the 2019 Save the Children Action Network Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C. At the summit, we would be learning about national policy change focused on issues revolving around early childhood and education, as well as the challenges facing children and families on a global level and what we can do as Americans to help protect the world’s most vulnerable population.
As I’m sure you can guess, Holly and I jumped at the chance. We both filled out our applications, were interviewed, and ultimately accepted as two of the Vermont representatives. We were so excited to be able to take the skills Let’s Grow Kids had taught us in a local setting and apply them on a national scale. What’s even more amazing is that we didn’t feel nervous at all! What we felt was motivated, energized, and confident. We boarded our plane to D.C. ready to meet this new challenge head on.
Thinking back over the last three days, I just can’t believe it really happened. We took the bull by the horns and made the absolute most out of the time we had there. We were up early every day and went to bed late every night. We filled our time with workshops, panel discussions, long talks about national policy, hearing remarkable personal stories told by amazing advocates from around the country and the world, interviewing folks about advocacy – including Mark Shriver (Whaaaat!?!) - for our new podcast (don’t worry, you will see more about this soon), making new friends, sharing our passion for teaching and early education everywhere we went. And, last, but certainly not least, we went to Capitol Hill and advocated for policy change with representatives from each Vermont’s legislators’ office. Honestly, so many things have happened in the last 72 hours, its hard to keep it all straight in my mind.
But, the thing I keep coming back to is this: None of this would have been possible, and I would not be the person I am today, without Let’s Grow Kids.
Because of Let’s Grow Kids, I’ve realized that I have a voice and a story worth listening to. I feel empowered, capable of creating real change. I have met so many talented, passionate, and motivated human beings, locally and now nationally, ready and willing to join forces to make a difference in the lives of their neighbors. And, I absolutely without a doubt WOULD NOT have had the courage to ask Mark Shriver, the CEO of Save the Children Action Network, for an interview if I hadn’t cultivated confidence in myself and my abilities through my experiences with Let’s Grow Kids.
But, the most important thing Let’s Grow Kids has done for me is given me the opportunity to teach my children the incredible role advocacy plays in our lives and the impact it makes on the world around them. My now four-year-old son has been right alongside me on this exhilarating ride. He’s been to countless meetings, collected signatures, shook hands and conversed with local legislators, and has been to the State House nine times. His enthusiastic participation at Let’s Grow Kids events is something I look forward to, almost as much as he does.
Four-year-old Lincoln observing the Vermont House of Representatives
The last time we went to the State House, we were watching the floor proceedings. Suddenly, Representative Marybeth Redmond, the representative from our district, stood up, acknowledged him by name, thanked him for the work as an advocate for Vermont kids, just like himself, and asked the Speaker of the House to recognize him. The Speaker recognized him and then every representative on the House floor stood up and clapped.
Every single member of the House of Representatives stood up and clapped for my son.
He stood up and looked at all of those important grownups standing and clapping for him with confidence, pride, and accomplishment oozing out of his little four-year-old body. His face in that moment is something I will never ever forget.
My son knows without a doubt that his voice, and his future vote, really do matter.
Since becoming an advocate, Vermont has started taking the challenges surrounding early childhood very seriously. In the last election cycle, both gubernatorial candidates made childcare one of their top policy issues. And, this legislative session the Vermont House has now passed two bills that specifically address issues facing Vermont children, families, and early educators.
On March 27th, H.531, the “Child Care & Early Learning” Bill passed unanimously (!!!!!) and on April 5th, H.107, the “Paid Family & Medical Leave” Bill was passed. These are two huge wins for Vermont, especially when only four short years ago most Vermonters, let alone legislators, had no idea how bad our childcare crisis truly was.
Even with these two steps forward, we still have an extremely long journey ahead of us.
So, I’m putting out a call for action. Let’s follow in my son’s footsteps. Let’s be brave and put ourselves out there. Talk to community members, reach out to legislators and policy makers on both a local and national level. Take those tiny steps out of our comfort zones, let our voices be heard on behalf of all of Vermont’s, and our nation’s, children. And, let’s not forget to celebrate. Celebrate what we’ve accomplished and the extraordinary future we are building together.
Please. Join Holly, myself, my son, and thousands of others. Speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves and create the change you want see in the world.
Because you can. Because you must.
My ten-month-old daughter, Virginia, Vermont's littlest advocate, hanging out on the House floor.
By: Dawn Irwin
It’s been exactly one month and five days since I have returned to school from a six-month maternity leave. I feel so lucky that I was given that opportunity. I’m very aware of the fact that most caregivers in our society do not get that long at home with a new child. Some can only afford a couple of weeks, which honestly, is another topic I could go on and on about. I digress.
Having the space to get to know my new baby and giving our family the time we needed to adjust to this new normal is something I will be eternally grateful for. However, I have to say, it feels so good to be back.
While savoring quiet snuggles with my baby at home, I also longed for the beautiful, orchestrated chaos of a room full of twenty children and four teachers. I missed my students and co-teachers more than words could ever properly describe, but I’ll do my best to try.
I missed the sound of blocks crashing together. The look of pride and accomplishment on a child’s face when she feels finished with her painting. The laughter and camaraderie felt with families. The soft and supportive words of a fellow teacher helping a child say goodbye to his dad at drop off. I missed the excitement felt between teacher and student when they’ve uncovered a new discovery. The spontaneous hug from a friend while playing outside. The organic, teachable moments found in a multi-age classroom. The natural flow of a day full of uninterrupted play. The intricate dance created working in a classroom side by side with three teachers I respect and love.
But, most of all, I missed the magic of emergent curriculum.
Observing my students in the classroom, creating provocations based on those observations, and building a curriculum thread from the results of those provocations is one of my favorite aspects of teaching. It permits me to follow a child’s interests, trust in her sense of wonder, and present items, ideas, and events that will challenge or gently push her pursuit of knowledge to a deeper level.
For me, reflective curriculum planning creates a perfect marriage with emergent curriculum. Thinking back on conversations, moments in play, and books I’ve recently engaged in with my students, or witnessed them doing without a teacher’s involvement, allows me to ensure that the provocations I am setting out in the morning directly correlate with something that has peaked their general curiosity. Reflecting back on the success, or interest, in the provocation helps me figure out what path the children are trying to lead us down. If a provocation isn’t a success, I can analyze the reasons why and make adjustments from there. Lucky for me, a month into my time back at school I am knee deep in a thread that just keeps growing.
One of the other great things about emergent curriculum is it supports following and exploring the interests of everyone in the classroom, including the teachers. It encourages educators to share their interests with their students to help expose them to new experiences and ideas.
I love music. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. The emotional connection that is created when I pour myself into a piece of music is the closest I’ve ever come to an out of body experience. I lose my sense of self in the very best way possible. I’ve always wanted to share my love of music with my students. I did my best, but felt that my inability to play an instrument really put a damper on it. Last year, my amazing boss creatively turned one of our professional development sessions into a ukulele lesson. After about an hour, I was hooked. I spent a lot of my time on maternity leave learning new songs and practicing them in front of the perfect audience – my four-year-old son. By the time I came back, I felt confident enough to sing and play for my students.
The provocations started out with instruments we already had in the classroom. The children would come over to investigate, perhaps play an instrument or two, or ask to sing songs. When my then seven-month-old baby was in the group, the older students loved showing her how to tap the wooden sticks together, ring the jingle bells, rub the sand paper covered clappers together, and clapped joyfully when she was successful – a wonderfully organic example of the magic of multiage education. Don’t worry, we will chat about this incredibleness later. As interest grew in the instruments, I brought my ukulele into the classroom. Again, it started with a general fascination and evolved into a desire to play. We grew from a small group experimenting with our instruments and singing classics like “The Wheels on the Bus” on the rug of our main classroom to a big group of students building stages and backstage curtains, putting together costumes, playing various instruments (including my ukulele), and performing original songs. When our more elaborate productions began happening, I had my most successful reflective curriculum planning session to date.
At the end of our school year, we host an event called Luncheon on the Green. Teachers, students, and their families spend the last day of school eating a picnic lunch together on our playground to celebrate the year and time we’ve spent together. Last year, our students decided they wanted to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon”. They painted a big mural and sang the song together on our stage for their loved ones. There wasn’t a dry eye for a mile around.
While watching one of the videos I took of the students’ performances in our Quiet Room last week, I thought about Luncheon on the Green and had an epiphany. Holly has been working on sewing projects with friends since the beginning of the year. They’ve designed and sewed tons of original clothing items and have been putting together various fashion shows for Davis Studio patrons. Dominique has been exploring and expanding our students’ ideas around paint. They’ve created beautiful, thought-provoking paintings and also took on the challenge of refinishing two chairs for the classroom. Elsa has been building elaborate structures with friends out of plastic rods and connectors. Through her encouragement, they’ve pushed themselves to follow their imaginations, building anything from an underwater shark infested animal hospital to a loop-da-loop castle with a tunnel room inside. I realized that just by following the interests of our small school community we had provided our students the perfect opportunity to present a culmination of their learning throughout the year. I excitedly brought up my idea at our most recent staff meeting. We could merge curriculum threads all four teachers have been following with our students into a spectacular curriculum showcase! As I looked around the table, I saw every single teacher’s eyes shining with delight. The room was buzzing with possibilities. You could feel the electric charge our energy and passion was creating.
And that, my friends, is emergent curriculum at its finest.
By: Holly Beckert
“Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and most of all connected to adults and other children" ~Loris Malaguzzi
First, it’s a little spark that you see in their eyes,
Next, it’s their little hand reaching for yours directing you over to see something “quick, right now!”
Before you know it it’s their little body running full speed into your arms upon arrival.
It’s a picture drawn just for you.
It’s in the moments you spend together each day.
It’s when they call you “mom” and then blush and say oops, I meant “Miss Holly”
It’s when they come in with something exciting to show you from home because they just knew you’d like to see it.
It’s showing you an acorn, a rock, a stick, some animal tracks, a broken toy.
It’s playing quietly by themselves but looking back now and then just to make sure you are there.
It’s a long story about their weekend, a booboo they got, the last time they went to the library, when something funny/silly/scary happened.
When they trust you with all of their feelings, happy or sad, angry and disappointed, messy feelings, like they say, “warts and all”.
It’s truly being able to be themselves.
It’s trusting you, looking up to you, enjoying and resting in your time together.
It’s the children truly knowing, truly seeing, truly feeling that the teachers are here for them, the classroom belongs to them, that we are supporting who they are as individuals and we don’t want to change a single thing about who they are. This is the twinkling magic we strive for in our relationships with young children.
Because this is what matters, the children come into our space, leaving their families for maybe even the very first time.
There is nothing as important, nothing, as ensuring these children feel they belong, they matter, they are capable of anything. That our trusted relationship is the foundation from which all learning will emerge.
Here’s what they don’t need: top of the line materials, carefully scripted and crafted lessons teacher-directed in the name of “kindergarten readiness”, forced participation.
These little people come into our lives for such a short time and what we do with that time matters. Let’s choose to put relationships first. Achieve those sparkling, glittering, twinkling feelings and you’ll know you’re on the right track. It’s truly amazing what emerges when you do!
By: Dawn Irwin
I know what you're thinking. You're wondering how a three-and-a-half-hour car ride doubles in length. Well, it's actually pretty easy. Holly and I were driving back from the incredible NAREA Brick by Brick seminar we attended back in November, thoughts bursting out of us and bouncing around the car, one right after the other. After about a half hour Holly said, "I wish we had started taping this conversation. I don't want to forget everything we are saying!" That comment made me realize how close we were to the only Cracker Barrel on our route home. I suggested that we stop, grab some delicious food, and write down everything that comes to us.
What came out of this amazing brainstorming session is what we like to affectionately refer to as our "teacher manifesto". It is our core values and what we believe are the essential practices that make us the early childhood educators that we are today.
Everything that we do and everything that we are comes down to the proclamations made in this document.
That being said, we also recognize that we are always evolving, not only as people, but as educators. Because of this, we view the following as a living document that will grow and evolve with us as we continue on our journey down the path of early childhood education.
So, without further ado...
Growing With Wonder: The Multiage Approach
- We are a multiage, emergent, Reggio inspired, play based, teacher/child collaborated approach to early childhood education.
- We believe in children, teachers, families, and the community all growing with wonder together to create an environment where all people are inspired to be their best selves.
- We believe that building strong relationships is the foundation upon which deep and meaningful learning emerges.
- We see each child as a capable human being, respect their individuality, and the unique contributions they bring to our community.
- We believe that children are born with an inherent sense of wonder. Through and with their peers, families, educators, and the community, they can grow that wonder together.
- We will do our best to never lose sight of the needs of the community and families we support.
- We believe in a true collaborative approach. Educators and families, families and child, child and community.
- We believe everyone is an agent of change and the owner of their educational journey.
- We believe teachers should always be hungry for learning, growing, and evolving into better, more passionate versions of themselves.
- Educators will always start with the child, giving them freedom of expression while guiding them along a path that leads them towards learning through creativity, allowing for deep and meaningful exploration, collaboration, and understanding of the world around them.
- We believe documentation, research, and reflection are crucial pieces of the educators' role in guiding students towards deeper learning experiences.
- We believe in giving ourselves permission to make mistakes, viewing each mistake as an opportunity for growth.
- We believe in always approaching life with a "Let's Try" perspective.
- Educators will continue to influence each other and the early childhood education field through discussion, presentations, knowledge sharing, mentorship, advocacy, and continuing the never-ending quest to provide children with the greatest educational experience possible.
This is who we are. This is what we believe in. This is where we start from. And we can only go up from here.
By: Dawn Irwin
When I was five years old my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Klinkenburg, asked my class what we wanted to be when we grew up. I didn't hesitate; I knew in my heart exactly who I was supposed to be. I whipped my hand in the air, impatiently waiting to be called on. When she finally picked me, "I am going to be you!" burst out of my lips. And, it was true. I knew I was meant to be a teacher.
A few years later, I had forgotten all about this event, and began fantasizing about the potential careers I could have when I became an adult. After graduating from high school, I tried on dozens of uniforms and desks before finally landing in the magical world of early childhood. Teaching, supporting, and loving children came as naturally to me as breathing. My entire life I had taken care of people - it's totally woven into my DNA - but now I was getting paid for it. And, honestly, most of the time it didn't feel like a job at all. I loved living in my students' world, creating incredibly strong and trusting relationships with them and their families, and learning from them who I was as a person.
Twenty-two years after my prophetic announcement surrounded by my fellow five-year-old classmates, I met the teacher who would impact my life more than any other. I was so nervous. I had just accepted a new teaching position at a very well known, prestigious school. There would be new teachers, students, families, routines, paperwork, you name it. Not to mention upholding the impeccable reputation that came with this amazing program. But, on my very first day a bubbly, energetic, and kind-hearted woman took me under her wing and began mentoring me. Because of Holly's incredible mentoring skills, I slowly gained confidence in myself and my abilities as a teacher. With her support and my newfound confidence, I was able to push and challenge myself to newer and greater heights. As time went on I was able to reciprocate this support, which enabled us both to grow as educators and friends. After six years of working side by side together we had become a dynamic, collaborative, and creative teaching team. Our strengths supported the other's weaknesses, our passion for early childhood education was immeasurable, and the love we felt for our students knew no bounds.
Fast forward a couple of years. Holly and I are co-teaching at a new, innovative program. We decide to attend a Brick by Brick one day conference in Boston hosted by the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance. The theme for the conference is Wondering and Learning Together. We spend the entire day soaking in every word, image, idea, and discussion shared with us. At the very end of the conference a woman stands up. She thanks us for attending. Then she asks the people in the room if they believe in children. Everyone raises their hands. She asks if we love the profession we have chosen. Most of the room, again, raises their hands. Then she asks how many of us believe that changes need to be made - drastic changes - to the field and the profession itself. Now, I had raised by hand every time so far, but this time, it shot up like an arrow. Then she said:
"Look around. See the hands in the air? These are the hands that need to make the changes we all know our profession needs. We can't wait around for someone else to pick up the baton and do it. No one else but you can do it.
There is no one else. You have to stand up and be the advocate. Bring back what you learned today and make the changes you want to see in the world.
You can do it.
Change the world, show people who we are and what you believe in. Make them see and understand what Early Childhood Education could, and should, look like. You want things to change? You know things need to change? Then bring your voice back with you and do it."
As she spoke, I looked around the room. Everyone was staring at her. Some people had looks of inspired awe, others were wiping away silent tears. I could feel my heart swelling in my chest. She had struck a chord in us. In me. I looked at Holly. I could see the same exact thoughts racing across her face.
I can be the change. I NEED to be the change. I WILL be the change.
We got into my car at the end of the day and words began pouring out of our mouths. The Hoover Dam had broken and there was no way to stop it. A tidal wave
of thoughts, energy, and potential filled the vehicle.
Holly and I knew we were great educators, but something happened to us after that speech at the end of that super inspiring day. I don't know if it was the woman's choice of words, the passion that filled her voice, or the vulnerable, honest look on her face. Whatever it was, a lever had clicked inside of us. We finally believed in ourselves in a way we didn't know was possible before. We finally believed in our ability to actually do something to change the status quo. We finally believed that change could happen and that we would be the ones to do it.
Thinking back on that three and a half hour drive that turned into seven, I can't help but look at it as a monumental turning point in my life. Holly and I decided that very night on Interstate 93 that we are going to start making some waves in the field of Early Childhood Education. We are going to create the loving, nurturing, supportive learning environments we want to see in the world. We are going to provide the educational experience children deserve, but is inherently missing from the center-based programs currently offered in America.
No one else is doing it, so why not us?
Of course we realize there are going to be those that don't understand, support, or believe in our vision. Of course we know that there will be roadblocks, bumps, and detours that will present themselves along the way. But, that's just all part of the journey, right? Isn't it the challenges, mistakes, and failures that make us stronger, more determined, more resilient, and more grateful for the successes? That's the lens we're choosing to look through.
So, here we are. Standing at the beginning of a very long and arduous road, about to embark on the journey of our dreams. Our careers. Our lives. And we plan on using this blog to document every step along the way. We would love for you to join us.
Share our joy, fear, hesitation, curiosity, and passion. Share our triumphs, our stumbles. Watch with us as we view the world through the eyes of children and learn all they have to teach us. Laugh with us. Cry with us. Grow with us.
Wonder with us.
We are Early Childhood Educators that consider introspection and reflection valuable tools that help us become the best teachers we can be. Please enjoy reading all about our adventures inside and outside of our classroom!